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Local News

Uncertainty remains over future of Potter Valley Project

A sign reading "PG&E Potter Valley Powerhouse" and the number 16001 outside a chain link-fence.
The Potter Valley powerhouse.

February 16, 2022 — Experts on the Potter Valley Project gave Farm Bureau committee members an update Tuesday night, providing details about flows, preparations for a ballot measure to levy a special tax, and the as-yet scarce information that’s available about what’s next.

Devon Jones, the Executive Director of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, laid the groundwork with some background and up-to-the moment specifics about how much water is coming through the East Fork of the Russian River into Lake Mendocino. Operations at the powerhouse have been significantly reduced due to a transformer failure, which means that since July, water can only come through the project using a bypass channel. That has been around 45 cubic feet per second (cfs), with five cfs contractually obligated for Potter Valley, a 35 cfs requirement for the East Branch leading into Lake Mendocino, and a five cs buffer. Jones reported that when she checked the Calpella stream gauge right before the meeting, she observed that 60 cfs is flowing into Lake Mendocino, probably due to some natural accretion from area creeks. “But this is a substantial reduction from what we would normally see during winter months being diverted for power production coming into the East Fork of the Russian River,” she reminded Farm Bureau members.

PG&E still owns and operates the hydropower plant and system of dams and reservoirs that divert water from the Eel into the Russian River. But the license expires in mid-April, and PG&E wants to get out from under the unprofitable endeavor. A regional group that was trying to raise money to study the feasibility of taking over the license announced last month that it will also not be filing an application. (The coalition consists of the Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission, which is a five-member joint powers authority consisting of local government and water districts; the Round Valley Indian Tribes, the County of Humboldt, Sonoma County Water Agency, and the environmental non-profit California Trout.)

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is expected to lay out the parameters of what’s likely to be a surrender and decommissioning process once the current license expires.

But as Janet Pauli, Chair of the Inland Water and Power Commission explained, that process could take years, during which time PG&E plans to operate on a year-to-year license. The utility has stated that it expects the design and replacement of the transformer to take two years, and that it can recoup the costs after another five years. Possible supply chain disruptions add another element of uncertainty to the process. “They have to continue to run the power plant with the license that’s currently in place on a year-to-year basis,” she said, clarifying that the project is likely to keep operating even if it is in the process of being surrendered. “If it’s going to be surrendered, it has to be absolutely surrendered before they can give up that responsibility,” she emphasized.

In another scenario entirely, there is also the possibility that PG&E could salvage the equipment or sell it to another entity that’s interested in taking over the project. However, no one other than the regional consortium of local governments and CalTrout expressed an interest when PG&E announced it wanted to offload the infrastructure. While it is physically possible to increase the amount of water flowing through the project by way of a bypass channel, Pauli said the company is being scrupulous about adhering to the terms of its license. “PG&E has not agreed to increase the bypass flows,” she said. “Fisheries agencies wanted to increase the minimum flows on the Eel River to 300 cfs. In other words, no increase in diversion through the project unless they had 300 cfs coming out of Lake Pillsbury. We dropped below 300 over two weeks ago now, and it continues to diminish. PG&E is not willing to do something that’s not currently allowed in their license.”

Pauli added that there was public pressure, too. About thirty letters came in, half of them urging PG&E to increase the flows and the other half arguing against it. Humboldt County and CalTrout, both members of the regional consortium that was trying to take over the license, did not weigh in either way.

While many parties regard the removal of Scott Dam in Lake County as a given, the Lake Pillsbury Alliance is prepared to fight for the continuing existence of the lake behind the dam, arguing that it is key to putting out fires in the region. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife funded a study of several different scenarios and methods for continuing the diversion without the dams, but those would not include diversions during the summer. Meanwhile, Pauli said efforts are underway to gauge the public’s knowledge about the water they use, and how much they’re willing to pay for it. A consulting company is sending out polls to property owners within the bounds of the Water and Power Commission’s five member agencies, to determine the viability of putting a special tax on the ballot in November.

In the meantime, each of the agencies in the Commission are asking their boards for $50,000 to secure the water supply. The County of Mendocino was first to approve its share unanimously, and at last week’s Commission meeting, Pauli said the money is in the Potter Valley Irrigation District’s budget. The Russian River Flood Control District approved half on a split vote. A staff report for the Ukiah City Council meeting on February 16 recommends that the Council request a written scope of work for the funds before agreeing to contribute. The Redwood Valley County Water District will discuss the matter at its meeting on Thursday February 17. District representative Bree Klotter asked Pauli to talk to her board about what the money will be used for, reminding the Commission that Redwood Valley is a cash-poor district. Pauli sympathized, saying, “That’s why we’re hoping this ballot measure is successful, because carrying this burden on the shoulders of these agencies is a burden, and it has been. And we’ve been doing this for a long time, and I think we’ve done an excellent job. But we do need some help from others in the community who are dependent on this water.”

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.